Saturday, February 7, 2015

Being a Music Student

There is an interesting essay by a singing teacher over at Slipped Disc. Well, sort-of interesting. From Norman Lebrecht's introduction you might expect something rather more marvelous than this:
Obvious as it sounds, turning up to classes is a start. Punctually. Which means arriving five minutes beforehand so that the class/rehearsal can begin on time. This, by the way, is how the profession is run. You never know when you might suddenly have that lightbulb moment that changes the way you work. I plan my classes to try and enable you to be that little bit better than you believe you can be; to challenge your parameters so that you will sing better than someone who wants the same work as you do….. To try and light a spark that might encourage you to dig deeper and come up with something thrilling/moving/funny…. I want to see you growing and fulfilling that potential that we saw in you when you auditioned here as a raw talent several years ago. I don’t want to see a young singer, jaded, uninterested, bored, playing with a phone, drinking their coffee, studying different music…. Or just not even bothering to show up.
Heh. Reminds me of the speech by Principal Snyder on Buffy the Vampire Slayer season three just before the Mayor turns into a giant demon snake and tries to eat the whole graduating class. Snyder masterfully underlines the pettiness of his job by stressing the importance of punctuality! Then the demon-snake eats him.

Well, yes, of course. Half of life is just showing up. On time. Or slightly before. I learned this one afternoon at McGill. McGill, as a university, tends to run about seven minutes late. Just about every class runs a bit late because the professor of the class before is running a bit late because she just has to impart that last little bit of wisdom. And I say that sincerely. Even chamber music rehearsals tend to start seven minutes late. But not orchestra. Oh no. I learned that when I had an obligato part in a contemporary composition. Used to the prevailing tendency I showed up to the first rehearsal a couple of minutes late, to find the entire orchestra and the conductor waiting for me. Staring at me as I made my way down the aisle in the empty concert hall. It was so humiliating that I never, never did it again!

But Susan McCulloch seems to think that this is the most important thing she has to impart to prospective singing students? Really? Choose to be on time? Again:
It is not for me to make you come to a class. Hopefully if I make it interesting enough you will want to come, and want to see how your colleagues are able to change their skills by the choices I offer them, or enable you to see how you can change the way you approach something and spark an interest in growing and learning. Hopefully.
 Wow. If, as it seems, this is the big problem at Guildhall school of music then I am amazed. Bored, jaded students? Perhaps things have changed, but it is hard for me to believe that one of the major magnet music schools in the world, able to draw on hundreds of applicants for every one that is accepted has these kinds of problems. It also strains my credulity that a singing teacher at this school thinks that this is what she needs to make a priority to her students.

I'm simply amazed.

In my experience teaching at the conservatory and university level (which included teaching at McGill), nearly all music students that make it to that level are talented, hard-working, dedicated lovers of music. They may find the occasional professor boring and uninspiring, but not the pursuit of music. They work long hard hours on theory, ear-training, history, repertoire, technique and dozens of other things. Not because that is the curriculum, but because they want to. Because they want to master the discipline and become the best they can be. I never in my many years in conservatory and university heard a single professor or administrator say anything even vaguely resembling this snoozer by Susan McCulloch. Why? Well, not because punctuality isn't important. But because it is one of those minor virtues somewhere between cultivating a rich timbre and mastering rhythmic acuity that was fully understood by everyone to be important and therefore not needing to be commented on.

So my conclusion after reading the professor's introduction to her students is that she is one of those teachers that brings out the boredom and disinterest in her students. It is a phenomenon that we used to refer to as "sounds like a personal problem" and therefore not worth discussing. Her personal problem, that is, not her students'!

Let's listen to some good singing to see why someone might want to take up the profession. Here is Jessye Norman singing Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss:

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